Back to the Future of Open-Back Banjos
Often regarded as America’s indigenous instrument, the banjo has a complex history. That’s not surprising when you consider that it’s been a big part of American music since at least the 1830s. Over the decades, banjos have evolved into a bewildering array of styles including open four-string and plectrum banjos, five-string banjos, as well as banjos with guitar, mandolin or ukulele necks. The earliest instruments came to our shores as part of the slave trade. Like so many other parts of our culture, the banjo started as an immigrant.
In their most basic form, the early banjos had a short drone string fastened part way up the neck, and most of them had five strings in total, although other configurations existed. All these instruments had a round body with a string head, and were strung with gut strings. At the time of the Civil War, banjos were tuned considerably lower than the steel string banjos of today.
As banjos gained popularity, they were often produced in small factories. Experimentation and evolution produced a variety of attempts to improve the tone and volume. Particularly around the turn of the 20th century, any number of patents were issued for such improvements, and there was fierce competition between different brands.
Banjos were made with wooden rings, or “shells” equipped with metal tensioning bolts to draw the head tight, and many also sported metal covering or metal structures over which the heads were stretched. Such “tone rings” modified the sound of the banjo and were often proprietary to individual manufacturers.
Those tone rings and shell configurations really do have an effect on tone, but exactly how they work is somewhat of a mystery. Many of the designs have been abandoned over the years, only to return recently in modified forms.
There is far more variety in open-back banjos than you might think. The body, also called the pot, comes in different sizes and weights. These variations account for the differences in tone you hear from ‘sharp and snappy’ to ‘plunky.’ This variation in tone is the result of the size of the pot and whether or not the pot includes a tone ring.
In its simplest form, a tone ring is a metal hoop that fits over the pot and under the head, adding mass and weight. This changes the volume and sharpness and brightness of the sound. The more mass, the sharper the tone. Bluegrass banjos have the heaviest tone rings of all, and have the loudest and snappiest tone. The other factor, the size of the drum head, has a similar influence. The bigger the head, the lower the frequency response and deeper and mellower the tone.
What size head and tone ring is right for you depends on what kind of music you are playing. For those of us that grew up in the sixties and seventies, the two most popular open-back banjos were made by the Vega company in the early part of the 20th century.
One was the ‘Tubaphone‘ and the other was the oddly named ‘Whyte Laydie.’ (The Whyte Laydie was made of blond maple, which was new in Vega’s production at the time, and took its name from the pale color of the wood.) Both of these have fairly heavy tone rings making them the loudest open-back models with the most projection. They are great for old-time string band music and work well for solo banjo players, as well. For years, most modern open-back banjo makers based their designs on one of these two instruments.
The professional grade Vega banjos, such as the Whyte Laydie, used an external bracket band around the exterior of the rim, providing great strength to allow the tightest head and strongest voice possible.
Recently, a more soulful style of playing has evolved among singer-songwriters looking for a subtler sound to accompany their vocals. There has also been a revival of old-time string band music and a growing interest in music from the 19th century. Consequently, lighter weight banjos with bigger (12 inch) heads have become quite popular. These banjos produce a warmer, sweeter tone and many of them have no tone ring at all and have the head simply pulled down over the wooden shell. Although this style of banjo may seem new, it’s actually a throwback to the instruments of the 19th century. These new (that is old) banjos are very plain with little or none of the fancy inlay decorating the neck and headstock that came into vogue in the early part of the 20th century. Many of them are based on the work of 19th century luthiers like Dobson, Boucher and Ashborn. In keeping with the antique asthetic, the shiny nickel plating common on modern instruments has been replaced by antiqued brass. This return to an older aesthetic has produced some of the nicest looking and sounding banjos to date.
Here at Gryphon we stock a variety of these instruments from a number of makers. Private builders include Rickard (Canada) and Waldman (California). Factory makers include: OME (Colorado), Bart Reiter (Illinois), Pisgah (North Carolina), Deering (California), and Recording King (China).